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Box Elder school construction project raises controversy

 

Last updated 3/24/2017 at 12:34pm

Havre Daily News/Floyd Brandt

Students use the gymnasium in Box Elder High School Wednesday. The Box Elder school district is considering putting a bond out to the voters to add on to Box Elder High School and the elementary school, including adding classrooms and buiding a new gym.

Some people among the small tax base who would pay for a proposed $3 million expansion to the Box Elder schools say being outnumbered by voters who wouldn't contribute to the project at all is "taxation without representation."

Kenneth Wilson, a Box Elder wheat farmer, said Thursday that the project's anticipated approval is "reverse discrimination."

Box Elder Superintendent Tom Peck said the school district is in a very unique situation because most of the voters live on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and don't pay taxes into the school.

"If you live on the reservation, it doesn't affect your taxes," he said, "but it puts a tax burden on those few with property outside of the reservation."

The Hill County voter roll lists 245 voters, active and inactive, in Box Elder's School District 13. Broken down by address, 74 of those voters have Box Elder addresses.

Dean of students Mellanie Jenkins said of the 435 students at Box Elder school, 418 of them list a Rocky Boy address.

Peck said the reason for the project is because school enrollment is bursting at the seams. He said he is confident the two $1.5 million bonds will pass and the project will be completed. He said he knows some property owners are not thrilled about the tax increase, but the potential increase would benefit them as well because a good school system promotes property value.

The three-phase project would add four classrooms, a separate entrance, an office space and two restrooms for the elementary school if the first of two $1.5-million bond proposals passes, and four science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, classrooms and two restrooms for the high school should the second $1.5-million proposal passes.

Peck said expansion of the cafeteria and kitchen is more likely to be paid by Impact Aid Construction funded by the federal government should the first two phases be completed; and, in the final phase, a new activity center - a gymnasium - would be built next to the football field.

Impact Aid is money provided by the federal government to offset property tax losses due to the federal government's ownership of land.

The gym, Peck said, could be used for many events, such as graduations, band concerts and sports tournaments, events that would bring commerce into Box Elder.

The value of the construction project is about $10.1 million, Peck said, but the remaining $7 million would be paid for by Impact Aid Construction Grant, a private donation and a possible loan.

Marnee Banks, communications director for Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in an email that although President Donald Trump's budget mentions eliminating one of the line items under the Impact Aid program, it's a small one that doesn't go to Montana.

"However," Banks added, "the White House is proposing drastic cuts to the Department of Education ($9 billion), so it's possible we see further Impact Aid cuts in the final detailed budget they release in May, but no one knows for sure right now."

Peck said the reservation will be contributing the land on which the high school portion would be built by leasing it to the school for a $1 a year.

No date on when the mail-in ballots are due has been set. Mail-in ballots for the two bonds will either be due May 23 or delayed, because of the special congressional election, until June 27, Peck said.

The tax increase would depend on the interest rate and on the taxable value of the home. If both bonds pass, a $100,000 property would be taxed an additional $252.25 at the lower rate, or $262.99 annually at the higher rate, a flyer of the project shows.

Wilson said about 60 "entities" will be stuck with the burden of paying $3 million dollars. Talk about the project has caused concerned property owners to approach him about selling their property to him, Wilson said.

This is especially a bad time for such an expense, Wilson added, because of the low food commodity prices.

"Farmers are going bankrupt," he said. "Commodity prices are below the cost of production."

Havre Daily News/Floyd Brandt

Box Elder Superintendent Tom Peck talks Wednesday in his office about plans to expand the high school and elementary schools in the town.

Wilson said it is likely that Peck, the school principal nor anyone on the school board pays property taxes, so it is easy for them to vote on the increase. Other issues, Wilson said, might be needed sewer and water repairs that would increase the cost or complicate matters.

Ryan McCormick, a grain farmer, said the same about commodity prices.

"We're operating at a loss, ag is," he said.

McCormick said he and neighbors he has discussed the proposed project with are not anti-public education nor does he reject the idea that better schools make for better communities. He said he believes that, but the proposal is too much, too fast. Three million dollars in taxes is a 30 percent increase, he said.

"Let's find some middle ground," he said. "This is not middle ground."

Some among the group of taxpayers are planning a community meeting, property owner Danita Menard said, to discuss the project and possible avenues they can take.

 

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